Kabul – Long Holiday

King Zahir Shah on an old Afghanistan postage stamp.

King Zahir Shah on an old Afghanistan postage stamp.

“Iran has banned national flag from flying at half-mast during mourning period, because the flag contains holy symbols of ALLAH, holy sentence of ‘la illaha ha ilallah (there is no God but ALLAH), and ‘Allahoakbar (Allah is great),” said an article on an Indonesian Internet newspaper today. I was interested by this topic, and asked my colleague whether Afghanistan has the same policy.

My friend didn’t understand my question.
“What is half mast?” he asked
“It is the culture to fly the national flag at half portion of the pole, to show mourning,” I answered.
“Why mourning?” he still didn’t get my question.
“Well… for example, there is someone very, very important in the country, dies. Then all people in the country mourning. Then it’s the culture to put the flag at half of the pole.”
“Why doing that?” he asked me more than what I was asking.
“I don’t know. That’s the culture everywhere.”
“I don’t know too.”
I didn’t get the answer.

But on the very same day, I got the answer.

This noon, a colleague came to our office, saying excitedly, “Baba-i-millat has just passed away!”
‘Baba-i-millat’? I know this means ‘father of the country’. But who is he? Hamid Karzai?
No. My friend said it was the king. But Afghanistan is a republic, no? Yes, the former king, my friend tried to make me understand.

Afghanistan was a kingdom before. In 1973 King Zahir Shah was overthrown by his own cousin Mohammad Daud who proclaimed the starting of the history of the country as a republic. Daud proclaimed himself as the first president of Afghanistan.

Then, with a long history of kingdom since two centuries ago when Ahmad Shah Durrani (Ahmad Shah Baba) from Kandahar united what is now Afghanistan and conquered territory from Mashhad to Delhi (or several millennia if you consider the history from Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, and Babur as kings of Afghan), Afghanistan has a set and a row of kings. There are some important names in Afghanistan kingdom history, like Amanullah Khan whose modernization programs in the 1920s which included unveiling of the women and the decree that ‘all Afghan men and women to wear western clothes’ caused violent resistance and led to a civil war in the country, overthrown by the Tajik gardener from Ghazni, Habibullah Kalakani, who was recognized as ‘Bacha Saqao’ or ’son of water bearer’, because his father was known to carry water. This gardener-on-throne was king of Afghanistan for several months, and it was obvious that the Pashtun tribes didn’t really like to be led by a Tajik king. Soon, Amanullah’s loyal general cum cousin, Mohammad Nadir Khan, removed the water carrier’s son from the palace and executed him. He became the next king. All of this up-and-down of Afghan kings happened in 1929.

Learning from Amanullah’s failed program of drastic modernization on strong traditional country, Nadir Shah took different policy. Instead of to turn Afghanistan to be Europe overnight, Nadir preferred gradual modernization so that he could get support from the people, especially religious and tribal leaders. But Nadir Shah didn’t stay long on his throne. He, who started his kingship with blood, also ended it with his own blood. He was assassinated.

His 19-year-old son, Zahir Shah, replaced the throne in 1933, and preserved the seat until the last day of the Kingdom of Afghanistan in 1973. He was the last king of Afghanistan. He is the one the people called as “Baba ye Millat”, father of nation. He is the one whose death was announced today.

At the time of Zahir Shah, Afghanistan was not a bloody country as it is today. As what I read from older travel books when Afghanistan was a happy hippy trail in 1970s, the country was a favorite tourism destination where all the men and the dogs go. Maybe it was the 70’s version of Thailand today – the backpackers replaced the hippies. Afghanistan at that time, despite of the world’s geopolitics shadowed by fear of Cold War, thanks to Zahir Shah’s policy, still maintained to keep out from the eastern and western blocking trends.

Zahir Shah was respected as the symbol of Afghan unity, said a professor from Kabul today, as he brought different political factions and religions together. “Everybody respected his majesty,” claimed the professor from Kabul University. He also promoted modernization and even gave vote right to women.

Like his predecessors, the king was overthrown by his own cousin. But this time, the royal palace ceased to see anymore Afghan kings. It was now seated by someone whom people addressed as ‘Mr. President’. Muhammad Daud Khan sat on the throne when Zahir Shah was abroad, and the poor king had to be exiled for the next thirty year. Daud’s reign was not long either. In 1979 Russia invasion to Afghanistan, a country suffering political disturbance, brought never-ending wars, strong streams of blood and tear, for decades. If you see Afghanistan today, you should not forget everything is connected, directly or indirectly, to what action started by the Soviet Union.

So if people are mourning to Zahir Shah, the last king of the empire, it might have something to do with the king’s success to lead the country to relatively peaceful paths for 40 years. The country was united. The Kalashnikovs were not hidden in neighborhood alleys. The roads were peaceful and Afghan rich history invited curious hippies on their way to Kathmandu. And suicide bombers? They might even have not born yet.

Father of nation, in today’s Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, is still respected as a great man. The country, starting from today, is in three-day mourning period. Government offices are closed (I have holiday until Friday). Despite of bans in the neighboring Islamic republic, Afghanistan flags are flying at half-mast (now my Afghan colleague knows the meaning of ‘half-mast’). And the guys in my office were talking about picnic to Kargah lake (I asked them whether it was the way to mourn the old Baba, they just giggled).

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